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Friday, January 12, 2007

Returned safely

He pursed his lips, concentrating, whilst drawing a clock face with a shaky hand. I had set him a series of tasks to complete as part of the Mental State Test - a 100-point test which is surprisingly sensitive to fluctuations in cognition.

This test covers all parts of long and short term memory, as well as the various facets of cognition. This means that the tasks range from answering questions like "What is your name?" to "What is my name?" to "What is the name of the leader of the opposition party". It also involves completing instructions like "Point to the door using your left hand, then pat your head" or "Repeat this phrase after me", and bizarre requests such as "Name as many words as you can, beginning with the letter 'T' in one minute...GO!" and "Write down a sentence on this paper, any sentence you can think of".

One of the questions I asked him was "When was the end of the 2nd World War?".

To my surprise, he answered, "Which end? I was there for both."

It turns out that he was serving in the Royal Navy and had been stationed in Europe, dodging U-boats until Germany surrendered on the 2nd of May 1945. Not long after V.E day, he was posted back to the warfront, but this time in Asia.

He was on the ship's prow, when the bombs went off in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August. All the crew on the boat were silent, watching as the great mushroom cloud formed far off on the horizon, 18 miles high.

"And when I saw the bright light, and the cloud rising up from the horizon, I cheered, and everyone else on the ship hurrayed. We ran up the flags and flew them, and that evening we had a party. Because we knew that the war was finally over. There would be no more fighting, no more death, no more burials at sea. I would never have to stand and count the planes that return. We could go home at last."

His eyes were bright with the memory of that moment, looking back over the grey sea, at the Union Jack flying high and proud in the morning, at the expanding white cloud that signified for him the end of years of horror.

Then, the brightness in his face dwindled, and he said, sadly, "I guess it's not acceptable nowadays, cheering at the dropping of the atomic bombs. We didn't know then how much devastation it caused. But people now, they forget how terrible it was, how much more terrible it could have been. They forget that if the war had not ended then, Japan would have continued to fight for years, until their very last soldier died. They would never have stopped. It was their way, you know? The war would have gone on for who knows how long. And it would have been long, horrible and bloody."

Lines appeared on his face then, and I saw the heaviness of his shoulders as he remembered the anxiety of the times. I saw him crane his neck to look over that ocean, waiting for his friends to return, counting the planes returning to the carrier, some of them riddled with bullet holes, hoping that he would not lose another comrade.

I looked back on the test paper with his (unsuccessful) rendering of the clock face. On it he had written a sentence, just as I had asked. Any sentence would do, I told him. But this one obviously had great significance to him -

"All aircraft have returned safely."


Blogger hamster said...

Here in Singapore we have very little chance to meet people of that generation and age - but we owe the freedom that we have now to them. And how often do we look down on them as bloodthirsty killers, or as unnecessary relics of the past?

I know I'm guilty of it. And will we ever fathom the price they had to pay - just as Christ paid the price for us?

10:06 am  
Blogger apgaRN said...


The long term memories certainly do persist. What an amazing period in the history of civilization to have lived through. And how touching that he was able to verbalize it to you. It's difficult to remember how much we owe to that generation, especially since our focus has shifted to current politics and problems.

Thank you for the reminder.

1:40 am  
Anonymous Kim said...

What a powerful post.

I have goosebumps as I write.

2:15 am  
Anonymous Ray said...

This is why you're still on my to-read list =)

12:06 am  
Blogger ID Crossroads said...

Nice post. It is profound to think that there are times and events that define us and our lives. And it's these memories that persist through the years. Good or bad, I'm not sure.

2:57 pm  

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